Highly Personal Three
Two mothers are telling their children about the Trinity. How do they explain it: three and at the same time one; one and at the same time three? One mother says, Compare it to our flag. It has three bars above each other. It also has three colours, red, white, and blue. None of the colours can be missing, otherwise it’s no longer our flag. The one flag consists of three colours. Three and therefore one. The other mother says: You can be three things at the same time. Mr. Johnson is the father of Jolene. He is also her teacher at school, and he teaches piano. He has three tasks. One and the same person and also three.
Aren’t these good explanations? Why shouldn’t we use them? There are others too. For example, a triangle has three sides, but also forms a unity. Similarly, a huge mountain with three peaks still forms an enormous massif. And so also one bundle of light that consists of three spotlights. Don’t these images clarify things well? In fact, eventually they serve more to cloud the concept.
Admittedly, the children were reassured and satisfied. And in fact, every image is defective, but at least it enables you to form a picture of the concept. Beautifully simple. Why make it difficult? Children will discover later that things are a bit more complex. There is something likeable about that. They are allowed to grow in knowledge. Think of the many images in children’s Bibles that need to be revised later!
So long as we realize that such images have shortcomings. And that they can even give an incorrect picture that demands correction. For it not true at all that God exists in three parts, as though every Person is but one-third God. And it also not true at all that the same Person performs a different function three times. For we are not talking about one Person, but about three Persons.
God never explains how this works exactly. He describes himself as he is. We are introduced to three Persons, but meanwhile God is simply known as one. If you insist on an image, choose the image of a “divine family” of Father, Son, and Spirit. A complete relationship in perfect harmony. They are completely one. They are always and eternally in agreement with each other. They are so indissolubly connected to each other that no one can ever come between them. When you address one, you also address the other. Nowhere does God’s Word trouble us with questions about how this is possible. It doesn’t intend that we should discuss it, let alone that we should dispute it. Rather, we should know that we live with each of them. We should not question it, but experience it!
You can hear a lot about a person. You can know much about a person. But you really only get to know someone through personal contact. That is true especially of God. God is not an impersonal quantity who does not commit himself. Our God is highly personal. That is apparent from how he acts. He makes plans, he makes choices, and draws people’s attention to himself. No one can avoid him. He is Someone. And he introduces himself as three. God is three times different. He’s not a single individual, but a threesome.
We can’t understand that. When a human being has multiple personalities, it is usually a bad thing. We even call it a split or schizophrenic personality. And now we have to consider not just two but three persons in one being! Your intellect can’t fathom that. But that’s how God makes himself known. He lets himself be seen from different perspectives. Gradually the Bible makes clear that we have to use three words for God. There is no eternal silence in God or false rest. In him there is abundance of movement and a living contact. He sparkles with relationships in himself. Three living persons who are also God; what an experience! The Father is not more than the Son and the Spirit is not inferior to the Son. No, none of these three powerful Persons is inferior to the others in love, in truth, in goodness, in righteousness, in mercy. The eternally rich God. . . .
Thus, God has never been alone. John points that out at the beginning of his gospel, when he writes: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1-2). The Word existed already before God created heaven and earth. God was Trinity before he began to create. He enjoyed the companionship of the Word. Not something, but someone. He did not come near to God. He was always near God. He was in such an immediate relationship with God that we always speak of a personal relationship: Father and Son. He was so close to God that there has always been a direct communication between them: the living Word. The Word was always and eternally with God, for the Word was God. He did not become God. He was God. Two Persons of equal standing who interact intensely with each other.
Our minds start to spin when we think about it. Especially when we hear about God’s only-begotten Son. Writers have groped for words in speaking about his divine origin, about eternal generation, about exiting from eternity. The more you think about it, the less you understand any of it, and therefore the sooner you are inclined to remain silent. God who proceeds of God; God of God, Light of Light (Nicene Creed). We can only stammer. But God says it of himself. And he clearly wants us to be aware of it. Father and Son belong to each other by nature. Two unique Persons who were always together. He who came from the Father: that signifies a very intimate connection (John 1:14).
Together with the Spirit
The concept of the two Persons is already unfathomable. But actually I have to speak of three unique Persons who have always been together. For the Holy Spirit is as much Person as God the Father and God the Son. And he does nothing but discern the thoughts of God (1 Cor. 2:11). God is not at all superficial. He is deep, so deep and multi-dimensional that no one can imagine, except . . . the Holy Spirit. He knows what God thinks. He knows God inside out. Even stronger, he is himself the moved Mover. He orients himself to the Father and the Son. But he also orients the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. God is so eternally rich, so surprisingly full of life, that he is three. The three are so gloriously involved with each other. When the boundaries of the Persons become blurred and begin to flow together, we lose sight of the essence of each Person. There is something characteristic about each Person that does not apply to the others. The Father did not come down to earth, but the Son. The Son was not poured out at Pentecost, but the Spirit (Athanasian Creed). They are not interchangeable. Each of them is indispensable and irreplaceable.
No Order of Precedence
We do, however, often adopt an order of precedence involuntarily. As if the Father were greater than the Son, while the Spirit ranks third. But all three are truly equally powerful, mighty, and good. Confusion happens when the Son, in his humiliation, speaks as a human being and addresses God the Father as his superior. But the Lord Jesus also speaks very clearly about the glory he enjoyed with the Father before the world began (John 17:5). He receives that position of being equal with God also as a human being: the name that is above every name, the highest place, the greatest honour (Phil 2:9-11)!
You will never fully understand this mystery. But the mystery of God’s Trinity presents itself to you time and again. God continues to introduce himself in this way. Each of the three Persons makes his own promise at the beginning of each worship service. Each places his name on you. In baptism the mystery is explained particularly well. Everyone’s name is pronounced in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. And each of them comes to the fore very personally, as it were, and makes his own promise. That is very apparent from the Form for Baptism. You know the phraseology so well that you may no longer notice that each gives his own promise. When we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father declares very personally, that he adopts us as his children and heirs. . . God above me! When we are baptized in the name of the Son, God the Son assures us, very personally, that he washes and cleanses us. . . This is characteristic of the Son, God for me! When we are baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit assures us, very personally, that he wants to dwell in us. This is characteristic of the Spirit, God in me! The triune God does so much for me. Without the work of these three, I could not cope. I need the personal contribution of each of them, he the triune God of my baptism. I cannot manage without any of the three. My soul and salvation depend on each of them. This confession is of vital importance. Everything stands or falls with it. Now I understand better why the Athanasian Creed puts it so strongly: “Unless a man believes it faithfully and steadfastly, he cannot be saved’. I cannot manage without the Father’s attention, nor without the Son’s, and also not without the Spirit’s attention. I need all equally. Without the salvation of these three, I can’t cope. If I should have to without one, I would no longer have God for me as he is, he who has life in himself, a living relationship in himself. To know the only true God, that is life.
Sharing in Unity
Life has become more and more broken and shattered. This has also been called fragmentation. Each person for himself, apart from everyone else. Only the individual matters. Unity is being lost. No wonder people become disintegrated and disoriented. They seek a renewed unity with passion. They identify with nature, with a country, with a people, or with a club. God’s Son prays for unity of those who are his, that all of them may be one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-21)! It is amazing that people are being called to share in the divine unity. That leads to unity with others too!
God is one, undivided. God exists in three Persons. He is not divided within himself, as if there were three gods. Father, Son, and Spirit are not three separate individuals that are self-sufficient. They are living Persons who are self-supporting, even as they submit to each other (John 10:30). That is why I used the image of a divine family, of the perfect relationship. They never separate. Nor are they subsumed in each other. But their attention is directed to each other. None of them is egocentrically focused on himself. Rather, there is an intimate relationship between the Father and the Son, and together they are united in the Spirit (John 14:15-20).
God is love. The three Persons love each other, they are drawn toward each other. When you address one, you address the others too. When you say “Father” you also say “Son.” And when you address the Son you also address the Father. You can only say “Abba, Father” through the Spirit (Rom. 8:15). No one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except through the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). That is how closely connected they are. You can address them separately, but you can never separate them. They are completely one, completely intimate. It is the purest relationship.
Therefore you can also not say that the one God fulfills three functions, as though he has three faces. The one time he wears the fact of the Father, another time that of the Son, and then that of the Spirit. If that were true, you would still look behind those transformations to seek God in his true form! No, God does not engage in role play in which you don’t know whether you are dealing with the true God. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father, says Jesus (John 14:9). No one can come to the Father than through me (John 4:6). That is how the Father is and the Son is precisely like him. He is truly like that. You really don’t have to look further. God does not present himself other than as he is. He not only reveals himself as triune, he is it too.
They remain three Persons and can you shed light on the work of each Person individually. But if one steps forward, the other does not take a step back. None of the Persons operates separately. The Father never does anything without the Son and the Son does nothing without the Father. The same is true of the Spirit. They do all things together. There truly is no difference in approach or in outlook, whether it concerns creation, deliverance, or to renewal. The harmony is fundamental for all the work they do. And this harmony becomes apparent in the work of each of the Persons.
Already in creation the Word fulfilled an active and creative role. Through him all things were made (John 1:3; Heb. 11:3). Nothing came into being without the agency of the divine Word. He forms and formulates. All people and all things owe their existence to him. God completed his creative work together with the Word. Yet not without the active presence of the Spirit (Gen. 1:2). The execution is done by the Spirit, who enabled growth and fruitfulness. We live by the breath of his mouth (Ps. 33:6; Ps. 104:30).
Our redemption has a centuries-long previous history. It stood fast as an eternal covenant from before the creation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). Father and Son were in complete agreement. God the Son made himself available as Saviour before all worlds. And at the same time he was appointed to do his saving work by the Father. But how could God’s open heart surgery possibly have succeeded without the participation of the Spirit? It was God’s eternal plan and his Son fully concurred with the plan. But the Spirit caused the birth through the Virgin Mary. Not a day goes by that the Son does not point to his Father, for he is full of the Spirit. How could he ever have borne our guilt if his Father had not accepted his saving work and the Spirit had not enabled him to do it (Matt. 3:16-19)? Jesus arose from the dead, but his Father raises him and his Spirit gives him a new body. Glorious cooperation.
Sanctification is characteristic of the Spirit: he draws from God the Father and the Son and lays that down in our heart. He ensures that God’s plans are executed and realized. The plan originates with the Father and the Spirit carries it out. And in the other direction: he draws us to God the Father and the Son. He is the spotlight on God the Father and the Son. He draws everything and everyone to God. He makes the connection, no matter the great distance. He gives effect to the life’s work of God the Son on earth in all of creation. He is burdened by it; he groans for creation that is in distress. He articulates our feeble prayers to God with groans that words cannot express (Rom. 8:26). And he works toward the new world in which God is all in all. He is not satisfied with anything less.
How does this unity come near us? It does so especially in the Lord’s Supper. The Supper is a sign and seal of the communion, the intimate bond with Christ, communion with the body and blood of Christ. He in us and we in him. That little word “in” depicts the intimacy of the relationship. It is the language of love. That they may be in us as I am in you, prays Christ. So that they may be one as we are one (John 17:21-26). Intensely involved, sharing fully in the divine family as sons and daughters. That is what the Spirit wants us to experience here and now. See it, feel it, taste it. The Lord’s Supper is not an empty sign. Something really happens in it. You are being called to unity, but that unity is also being forged. By God’s Spirit, who abolishes loneliness. United.
Of Vital Importance
You will notice that all this is not some cold theory, but an experience. You should not argue or philosophise about it. Rather, you should revere God by worshipping him and singing praises to him. He, the only true God is Three, true to life. Full of life. Believing in him is of vital importance. Entrust yourself to the Three. For no one can make do without any one of them. That is how united they are! Live in that unity; experience that unity. Have a relationship with the Trinity. It gives life to a person. Knowing God, only that is life, eternal life (John 17:3).